A New Book for the Contemplative Community: Awakened by Death by Christiana Peterson

I’m delighted to introduce a new book for the contemplative community! Yesterday, author Christiana Peterson released her new book, Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics. This beautiful book offers stories and wisdom from history’s mystics to helps us reclaim a healthy engagement with our mortality. You will find a lot of hope in this book; it’s one that our death-averse culture desperately needs.

I also love the way that Christiana tells us her own stories and fears. In the excerpt below, she begins with a childhood story and shows us how love leads us to care for others’ wounds. This in turn can help us face our own wounds and our mortality.


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When I was a child, I developed a Band-Aid phobia. According to my mom, this fear reached its pinnacle when I stubbornly refused to keep the Band-Aids on that she’d applied to the oozing blisters on my feet, caused by those plastic jelly shoes from the 1980s. She didn’t understand why I would rather keep the shoes on and let my blisters continue to break open and pustulate than wear a Band-Aid.

Even now, the thought of used Band-Aids mashed into the dirt of the playground, the ones that flapped off a child’s ankle during play, or soiled bandages in the dusty corners of the public restroom makes me want to gag.

Maybe Band-Aids remind me of wounds. Wounds can be shocking to see and smell, visceral reminders that all those bloody, sinewy, bony parts peeking out underneath the skin are indeed mortal. I remember studying the Black Death in school; the descriptions of the wounds that accompanied such a horrible sickness dug their way into my psyche. Bursting boils or buboes the size of oranges on the groin or lymph nodes, symptoms that tortured the lungs or the blood, aches and pains across the eyes and the head.

The people of the Middle Ages were well acquainted with wounds. They didn’t have the luxury of advanced medicine or science; doctors only had cursory knowledge, and their treatments often did more harm than good. Though they didn’t always understand the science behind what caused bodies to die so violently with the Black Death or other illnesses, they saw what the skin of their failing children and parents and spouses looked like when boils bubbled and burst. They heard the sound of their cries and the agony of the silences when the cries stopped. Their acquaintance with disease and death was unavoidable; pain management a fiction.

For Saint Francis and Saint Catherine, an acquaintance with wounds and decay helped them approach the suffering of others. Saint Francis famously made peace with others’ wounds. Growing up in a wealthy family, he was revolted (as many people were) by the lepers who were forced to remain on the edges of society. Wealth did for Francis what it has always done for those with power and resources: it allowed him to remain aloof from the suffering of others. As much as it was possible for a person in thirteenth-century Europe to avoid suffering, Francis did in his youth.

But his treatment of lepers became a marker of the blossoming of his relationship with God. And eventually, the leprosy that had formerly disgusted him became the evidence of his transformation.

One spring afternoon, Francis slid off his horse, reached out to a leper on the road, and kissed him. Only months later, he heard the voice of Jesus in the church at San Damiano, and he moved toward a life of poverty, giving away all of his possessions and living with lepers.

Saint Catherine of Siena had a vision of Jesus in which she kissed and licked his wounds. This graphic image takes us from our tendency to spiritualize the passage in 1 Peter that says of Jesus, “by his wounds you have been healed.” Catherine seemed, like many mystics, to believe not only in the spiritual but physical power of Christ’s wounds.

There is also a story of a prisoner named Niccolo who was doomed for execution. By the time Catherine visited him in prison, he had already refused a priest and prayer. But Niccolo couldn’t resist Catherine’s charisma and contagious passion for God. When she finally got through to him, he begged her to become his confessor.

As Niccolo’s beheading approached, he pleaded with her not to leave him. Catherine followed him up the long walk to the execution platform, heard his prayers, and knelt to catch his head as it was severed from his body.

As grotesque as these images might seem to us—of Catherine of Siena with her mouth to a wound and catching a decapitated head—she was offering her presence in death and decay.

Though I’ve never licked a wound—gross—I have tended to my children’s wounds, hurts, and bodily fluids more times than I can count. I have cleaned up their vomit and feces, held bloody cuts closed with my hands. And while their wounds concerned me when they were severe, I can’t imagine being disgusted by them. Band-Aids don’t bother me when they have been on the cuts or wounds of my children.

Because I desperately love my children, even the unlovely parts of them are dear to me.

Even so, loving them can be challenging. But it is harder still to love others, especially those who might, at first glance, seem unlovable. Love has to be learned, tended, and nurtured if it is to be deep and lasting. Love expects us to care for the wounds of another, not just spiritually and emotionally but physically.

Saint Francis loved the wounds of others, but first he had to come to terms with his own wounds. Like all of us, he had to acknowledge that there were unlovely things about him too. He mourned his own weakness, and his love for others became so deep that he literally took on their wounds. Some say that the stigmata on his hands, feet, and side that oozed and never fully healed were actually leprous.

Becoming attuned to the things that disgust us and to the things that we fear is not just a good intellectual exercise. The ways we approach the things that horrify and disgust us might show the ways we look at death. The difficult and painful work of facing death can actually be an act of love.

*Excerpt from Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics by Christiana Peterson copyright © 2020 Christiana Peterson admin. Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.

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Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Her writing on the mystics, community, the spiritual disciplines of motherhood, and death has been featured in Christianity Today, Art House America, The Christian Century, and Bearings Online. She’s a regular contributor to Good Letters, an Image Journal blog. She lives in Ohio with her husband and their four children.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! Prasanta Verma and I hope you enjoy this week’s roundup, which includes wonderful words on creativity, kindness, poetry, saints, and spiritual practices. Enjoy and be blessed.

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Touching Sacred Earth: Expressive Art and Spiritual Practice with Christine Valters Paintner via EarthRising podcast (disciplines that cultivate a connection with creation and the Creator)

A little more kindness, a little less madness via Cara Meredith (could this kindness be the Christ?)

Seven Suggestions for Living a Creative Life via Dorothy Greco (creativity is part of our spiritual DNA . . . get inspired with these suggestions)

The Return via Marilyn R. Gardner (holy moments and the peace of belonging)

Beyond Juan Diego and Kateri: Meet other indigenous American saints via Meg Hunter-Kilmer (learn about lesser-known saints who embraced Christianity without rejecting the beauty of their own cultures)

Book Launch Interview with Luci Shaw via Writing for Your Life (hear the prolific poet read her poems and talk about writing, divine creativity, and advice for new writers)


Advent Is For Pilgrims

Have you noticed that journeys abound everywhere you look in the Christmas story? Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem. Then they take the infant Jesus to Jerusalem forty days after his birth. The wise men journey from afar. And the Holy Family flees to Egypt.

And what about us? Well, the Incarnation sets us on a journey, too.

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Fresco of St. Catherine from the Basilica of San Domenico, Siena, ca. 1400

In ca. 1378, the Italian mystic Catherine of Siena wrote:

You see this gentle loving Word born in a stable while Mary was on a journey, to show you pilgrims how you should be constantly born anew in the stable of self-knowledge, where by grace you will find me born in your soul.

This passage is from St. Catherine’s Dialogue. In the passage, God is instructing the soul. Notice, first, that God calls us “pilgrims.” You pilgrims. Hey, you pilgrims! Mary is not the only one on a journey this year. We are, too. We’re on our way to the stable, and we’re going there, in Catherine’s words, to be born anew.

To be precise, we will be “born anew in the stable of self-knowledge.” This phrase sounds remarkably modern. But by self-knowledge, I don’t think Catherine means “finding ourselves.” She means knowing ourselves as we can only truly be known . . . and that is through our rebirth in Christ. Even on a daily basis, we can be renewed in our spirit and regenerated in our heart by traveling to the source. To the stable. Born into Christ, into his great love, we know who we are and we know whose we are. This is surely one of the great yearnings we experience during the season of Advent – to see Christ come into time, into a hurting world, and make us new and tell us who we are.

In The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner speaks of this journey of renewal. Riffing on The Wizard of Oz, he writes, “For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning…” What he describes here is like a rebirth – an acquiring or knitting together of all the parts we need to make us whole.

Both Catherine of Siena and Frederick Buechner really speak to me this year. I’ve been feeling so fragmented, so pulled apart by circumstances and people and the warring desires of my heart. For me, rebirth means to be knit together as a whole creation. When this happens, I will not become something or someone entirely new. I will be most fully myself. This is Catherine’s “stable of self-knowledge.”

I like the way Catherine rephrases her thoughts on birth at the end of the passage quoted above. God says, “you will find me born in your soul.” To be reborn in Christ is to have him be born in our soul. It is a double birth.

If Christ is born in us, we can then bring him forth into the world. We can bring the love of Jesus to our neighbors, our friends, our family, and to our hurting communities. In his commentary on Luke, St. Ambrose said, “Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith.” Our own rebirth helps birth Christ for a world in need.

So this year, I am making a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. I hope you’ll come with me. We will travel to the stable like Mary so that we can find God born in our soul. And we’ll travel as our own broken selves so that we can be born into new life. Jesus and us, born on Christmas day.

 

FEATURED BOOK: THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING

Week 3: When You’re Distracted During Prayer

Cloud of Unknowing cover

The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century treatise on contemplative prayer, introduces a subject that plagues us all — distractions. Medieval mystics and other giants of the Church speak of distractions a great deal — obviously it’s a prayer problem that’s always been around.

The 13th-century Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas said, “a man can scarcely say the ‘Our Father’ without his mind wandering to other things.” The same is true, perhaps even truer, of contemplative prayer. So if you have trouble with distraction, take heart! You (and I) are not alone. The Cloud author gives us these tips for dealing with those pesky stray thoughts:

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When distracting thoughts press down on you, when they stand between you and God and stubbornly demand your attention, pretend you don’t even notice them. Try looking over their shoulders, as if you’re searching for something else, and you are. That something else is God, hidden in a cloud of unknowing.

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When exhausted from fighting your thoughts, when you’re unable to put them down, fall down before them and cower like a captive or a coward overcome in battle. Give up. Accept that it’s foolish for you to fight them any longer. Do this, and you’ll find that in the hands of your enemies, you are surrendering to God.

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I also believe that when this attitude is genuine, it’s nothing but seeing who you really are . . . This is humility. The good news is that humility gets God’s attention. He’ll descend to avenge you against your enemies. Swooping in, he will snatch you up and then gently dry your spiritual eyes . . .

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I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.

Reflection:

Cloud quote - week 3

Featured Book: Finding Grace at the Center

Week Three: Prayer without Judgment or Evaluation

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, Thomas Keating provides an extremely helpful introduction to centering prayer based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a Carthusian monk’s prayer guide for novices dated to around the 14th century.

Keating is especially careful to avoid overselling what “happens” during centering prayer. One may not expect incredible revelations or to even be fully in control of what happens during this prayer. Rather, intention becomes essential as we enter this form of prayer.

Keating writes:

 

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“[Centering prayer] is not an end in itself, but a beginning. It is not to be done for the sake of an experience, but for the sake of its fruits in one’s life.”

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“The presence of God is like the atmosphere we breathe. You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.”

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“Accept each period of centering prayer as it comes, without asking for anything, having no expectations. In that way its fruits will grow faster.”

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“We always want to possess. That is why it is so hard to leg go–why we want to reflect on moments of deep peace or union in order to remember how we got there and thus how to get back. But charity is non-possessive. It gives all back to God as fast as it comes. It keeps nothing for itself.”

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“Take everything that happens during the periods of centering prayer peacefully and gratefully, without putting a judgment on anything, and just let the thoughts go by. It does not matter where they come from, as long as you let them go by. Don’t worry about them.”

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Read more…

 

Scripture Meditation: Don’t Think Too Hard about It…

“The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! Joyful are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach with your instructions.”
– Psalm 94:11-12, NLT

What better motivation to pursue the silence and rest of contemplative prayer than to read that God knows our thoughts are worthless!

While there is a great deal in scripture that praises meditating on scripture and remembering God’s laws, this Psalm offers a reality check for the times when we rely on our own wisdom. Most importantly, we find that even when God sees our inadequacies and failures, he responds with mercy and instruction.

Even when God knows that we will fall short over and over again, he desires to give us the joy of his instruction and discipline. May we find God’s loving direction, even as we discover the folly of our wisdom.

Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

finding-grace-at-centerWeek Two: Transformed in Silence

In Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, M. Basil Pennington writes about the transformation that comes in the practice of centering prayer.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of centering prayer for those new to it is the manner in which God transforms our lives in silence. There is no way to measure or evaluate your progress in the moment.

The transformation of our lives happens gradually by faith, much like the way a branch that abides in its vine can grow fruit.

 

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“Perhaps in this prayer we will for the first time really act in pure faith. So often our faith is leaning on the concepts and images of faith. Here we go beyond them to the Object Himself of faith, leaving all the concepts and images behind.”

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“If we have lots of thoughts-good, lots of tension is being released; if we have few thoughts-good, there was no need for them… All these are purely accidental; they do not touch the essence of prayer, which goes on in all its purity, whether these be present or not.”

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“If we are faithful to this form of prayer, making it a regular part of our day, we very quickly come to discern-and often others discern it even more quickly-the maturing in our lives of the fruits of the Spirit.”

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“We begin… to experience the presence of God in all things, the presence of Christ in each person we meet. Moreover, we sense a oneness with them.”

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Read more…

 

For Reflection

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Contemplative Profile: Evelyn Underhill

Week Two: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

In Evelyn Underhill’s later works we see a theme that runs through the history of Christian contemplation: the dance of contemplation and action. Our private prayer life is important. In fact, Underhill says we must each be a “secret child of God.” Yet our prayers also open us to the larger purposes of God. We’re not merely fulfilled; we’re spilled out into the world.

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“For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purposes.” (Worship)

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“A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it . . .” (“Life as Prayer”)

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“We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to His music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life; mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.” (Spiritual Life)

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Reflection

How can I be both a receiver and a transmitter of God’s love this week?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Scripture Meditation: Servants Don’t Need to Be in Charge

“Mary responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.’ And then the angel left her.” Luke 1:38, NLT

How do we live by faith today? Mary faced one of the greatest stretches of faith that anyone could face, and she remained able to fully trust in God’s provision and plan because she knew her place.

As God’s servant, Mary only had to trust what God showed her.

It wasn’t up to Mary to figure out the plan or to provide the means. She didn’t imagine that she was in charge in any way, and with herself entrusted to God’s care, she didn’t have to be worry about what happens next.

Living by faith as the servants of God makes it possible to approach the challenges of each day with a peaceful confidence in God’s provision.

Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

Week One: We Are Made to Love and to Be Loved

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, we find a brief and generally accessible (2 out of 3 essays at least) introduction to centering prayer and contemplation. The most important step at the outset is to reorient ourselves around God’s reality rather than our own.

We simply won’t proceed into centering prayer without accepting God’s love for us, learning to stop expending effort in order to pray, and stepping away from our many priorities and activities.

This opening essay by M. Basil Pennington offers several grounding statements that can provide the foundation we need to move forward into prayer:

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“We have been baptized into Christ. We are in some very real, though mysterious way, Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. ‘I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20). As we go to the depths we realize in faith our identity with Christ the Son.”

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“In a movement of faith that includes hope and love, we go to the center and turn ourselves over to God in a simple ‘being there,’ in a presence that is perfect and complete adoration, response, love, and ‘Amen’ to that movement that we are in the Son to the Father.”

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“In practice most of us work as though God could not possibly get things done if we did not do them for Him. The fact is there is nothing that we are doing that God could not raise up a stone in the field to do for Him.”

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“No one else can give God our personal love. It is uniquely for this that He created us.”

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“If we expend great effort, then when it is done we can pat ourselves on the back and salute ourselves for our great accomplishment. This prayer leaves no room for pride. We have but to let go and let it be done unto us according to His revealed Word.”

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Read more…

 

For Reflection

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